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Review: Astronautics

Astronautics: Book 1 – Dawn of the Space Age
by Ted Spitzmiller
Apogee Books, 2007
softcover, 232 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-894959-63-6

Astronautics: Book 2 – To the Moon and Towards the Future
by Ted Spitzmiller
Apogee Books, 2007
softcover, 264 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-894959-66-7

Over the last half-century there have been innumerable books published recounting the history of the Space Age or some portion of it. However, is there any one book that, at any given time, can be said to be the definitive history of spaceflight? That’s the ambitious claim made by Astronautics, a new two-volume work that covers humanity’s efforts to fly in space from the earliest pre-history to the present day and beyond. While impressive in scope, though, it ultimately falls short of its quest to be the authoritative history of space exploration.

Astronautics is split into two volumes, but in all but its physical form it is a single book: volume 2 uses the same chapter and page numbering scheme as volume 1, starting with chapter 20 on page 245. The first book covers everything from the earliest studies of astronomy and rocketry through the Mercury and Vostok manned spaceflights of the early 1960s. Volume 2 picks up from there, going through the history to (more or less) the present day, concluding with some speculation about the future. In about 500 pages Spitzmiller manages to cram in a lot of details about the history of spaceflight, both human and robotic, although for those already familiar with much of that history Spitzmiller doesn’t offer much in the way of new details or insights.

However, can Astronautics lay claim to being the authoritative history of spaceflight? The book appears to be primarily a synthesis of existing histories, rather than a reexamination of the topic from primary sources. The book’s bibliography spans only a single page (albeit two columns, and in a tiny font), and there are no endnotes linking specific passages in the text with the sources Spitzmiller used. The language can, at times, be a little wishy-washy: on more than one occasion, when discussing a controversial topic like von Braun’s knowledge of Nazi atrocities during the development and production of the V-2, he resorts to “some people say” and “while other people say” expositions rather than taking a stance on one side or another.

The book appears to be primarily a synthesis of existing histories, rather than a reexamination of the topic from primary sources.

The book also has a number of errors. Some are relatively minor, such as a rather unfortunate misspelling of the last name of Maxime Faget. Others raise questions about his knowledge of the field and his sources: he mixes up missions that are part of NASA’s Discovery and New Frontiers programs of science missions with the New Millennium program of technology demonstration projects. His most egregious error, though, occurs late in Book 2 when he claims that President George W. Bush, expressing his lack of interest in the International Space Station, said “We plan to either hold an auction on Ebay [sic] or give it away to our international partners.” While the lack of endnotes makes it impossible to determine what source Spitzmiller used, research by this reviewer traced that quote back to this SpaceDaily article from April 1, 2005—an obvious (if not terribly humorous) April Fools’ Day joke. The book’s layout—whose use of a rather small font size give the pages a dense, uninviting appearance—also suffers from a number of minor glitches, like unexpected changes in font and spacing, as well as the use of some relatively low-resolution figures of various rocket and spacecraft designs.

Given these flaws, it is tough to argue that Astronautics is the definitive history of spaceflight, or even any particular aspect of it. It is comprehensive, but hardly the final, authoritative account of humanity’s initial steps into the universe. However, trying to write such an account might simply be too ambitious a project to cram into 500 pages, given all that has happened in the last 50 years.